For centuries, human society has driven apex predators across Europe towards extinction. And as frightening as our some of these predatory animals may seem, it’s humans who have been the real predator.
But today, in some areas at least, mankind is helping to redress the balance. All around the continent and beyond, efforts are in full swing to bring back apex predators, along with all the associated benefits to the habitats they live in. Schemes to reintroduce and foster eagles, brown bears, wolves and wildcats are gathering pace. In Spain’s Iberian Peninsula, it’s the Iberian lynx which is benefitting from an approach where man is more custodian than conquistador.
“The Iberian lynx is one of the most endangered cats on the planet,” explains conservationist and photographer Antonio Liebana, “but thanks to the initiative at places like Peñalajo in Castilla la Mancha, the latest census produced the very happy figure of 1,668 specimens throughout the Peninsula. That’s an exponential rise over the last 10 years!”
As is becoming clear around the world, the project – a joint effect between the local administration, WWF Spain, and Antonio’s own photography organisation, Wildwatching Spain – is as much about training people and helping them to see the benefits of rewilding, as it is about policing or punitive measures.
“The Peñalajo farm project began as a pilot in 2016 and before that, this 2,500-hectare site was used for hunting partridges and rabbits. But all that changed when the farm adopted the Iberian lynx conservation programme seven years ago. I came on board two years later with Wildwatching and since then, the estate has turned into a place where international photographers can come and take amazing images.”
The model in Peñalajo has certainly changed thanks to photography and now we have photographic hides where people can enjoy the beauty of these animals up close in a respectful way. In 2022, more than 1,300 photographers from all over the world visited the site, and the benefits for the local economy were far greater than those of hunting. It proves that sustainability can exist in private and public spaces.”
The hides that Antonio helped create are based around the cats’ need for water. “We took advantage of the semi-dry habitat of Peñalajo, where water is a scarce commodity, by creating six water points on the site, each one eight metres from a hide. This means that photographers can enjoy this species with a low profile and at a distance – and also with a point of view that’s unique in Spain.”
Now tasked with locating and maintaining the hides, “we make those choices based on the light and the presence of the species,” Antonio continues. “It’s wonderful to have a job that excites me and where I can put all my knowledge into doing something good for wildlife as well as helping other photographers to enjoy it. But to start with, I found the job quite a challenge, since I had never worked with lynx before. I have embarked on over 60 safaris throughout Africa, though, so I based some of my decisions on my experience of leopards.”
Born in Madrid, Antonio was always attracted to wildlife, telling us that “like many Spanish children, I was excited by the natural world thanks to Spanish naturalist Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente and his TV programme, The Man & the Earth. I learned to recognise and respect Iberian wildlife, then in adolescence I would take a small camera when hiking in the mountains. I immediately saw the potential that wildlife photography could have. I saw that if I could give others a taste of those sights, even with my modest equipment, I could make the leap to being a professional.”
And like many photographers he recognises that it’s a total immersion in the subject that makes him successful. “Even without a camera, the greatest motivation is, without a doubt, getting close to the animals. It becomes a way of understanding the importance of life. Being able to witness unrepeatable moments is the driver, and by photographing them, I can make others aware of the beauty that’s out there, as well as the problems that concern a species.”
Therefore, while the hides at places like Peñalajo are proving that sustainability can be profitable, they’re also about spreading the message wider. “Photography is a powerful weapon,” he explains, “because what is not seen is not valued. A single image can say many things, but its simplest and most powerful effect is to tell our family and friends that while the world is a beautiful place, it will only remain so if we fight for it. We need to take action to preserve what inspires us or soon it won’t be there.”
Back at Peñalajo, it’s not only Ibernian Lynx that are benefiting from the project. “The entire estate is now dedicated to conservation and that means we’re seeing plenty of other species thriving,” says Antonio, “including iconic birds like the imperial eagle or the little bustard, which are very popular with photographers.”
As for the Lynx, their safe environment means that new behaviours are being noted, and this has led to some of Antonio’s favourite shots from the area. “In an abandoned haystack in the forest, lynx have found a place to breed – and unusually we observed two mothers in the same brood den,” he reveals. “There were no records of this previously, so it’s undoubtedly a sign of their comfort. And of course, that means we got the chance to shoot the cubs! They are so beautiful, but the most wonderful thing is the proof that the species is rising.”
Currently working with two Sony Alpha 1 bodies, “these cameras give me a focus speed like never before,” Antonio explains, “with a 50-megapixel file and up to 30 photos per second. Without a doubt, these are the ideal bodies for this type of photography, while the FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS has been my workhorse in this project. Its reach, luminosity and sharpness are the dream of any wildlife photographer, and it combines perfectly with the 1.4x Teleconverter – which becomes particularly useful when the cubs emerge!
Both cameras and lens are also great at resisting the dust that we have there in the summer months – and Sony has been very active in providing loan equipment for those who attend the photographic workshops here in Peñalajo. With their continuous support, and providing kit to those passionate about capturing nature, Sony is helping photographers spread the word of the good work going on here – helping us to use photography as a way of highlighting he importance of endangered species. And in this case, it’s the Iberian Lynx.”
Looking forward, Antonio hopes that more sites will follow the example of Peñalajo and use photography as an engine for conservation. “It’s wonderful to see how we’ve managed to change direction in terms of conservation here, helping the lynx and other species to thrive, and photographers are very much part of that equation,” he concludes. “This was unthinkable in farms of this type in Spain not many years ago. It’s a prime example of sustainability and development, not only for the farm, but for the local restaurants, hotels, and other services. It shows that when we work together, we can be true custodians of nature.”
"Photography is a powerful weapon because what is not seen is not valued. A single image can say many things, but its simplest and most powerful effect is to tell our family and friends that while the world is a beautiful place, it will only remain so if we fight for it."